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SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (director/writer: Preston Sturges; cinematographer: John F. Seitz; editor: Stuart Gilmore; music: Charles Bradshaw/Leo Shuken; cast: Joel McCrea (John L. Sullivan), Veronica Lake (The Girl), William Demarest (Mr. Jones), Franklin Pangborn (Mr. Casalais), Porter Hall (Mr. Hadrian), Robert Warwick (Mr. Lebrand), Eric Blore (Sullivan’s Valet), Robert Grieg (Sullivan’s Butler), Jan Buckingham (Mrs. Sullivan), Almira Sessions (Ursula), Byron Foulger (Mr. Valdelle), Al Bridge (The Mister); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paul Jones; Paramount; 1941)
“A delicious tragi-comedy set during the Great Depression.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Writer-director Preston Sturges (“Christmas in July”/”The Great McGinty”/”The Lady Eve”/”The Palm Beach Story”), who was first a noted screenwriter of screwball comedies before becoming a director, serves up a delicious tragi-comedy set during the Great Depression. It takes its satiric juices from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and ends up being a social comment film on Hollywood. The film is dedicated to clowns because they make us laugh. It can be read as a pat on the back to Hollywood for making popular escapist films, or as Sturges’ stinging comments on liberals and their self-righteousness in making message films of social significance. In any case, the film has more charm than in its intended dubious purposes, and fills in the narrative with frantic and cartoonish action scenes better than its narrowly contrived plot seemed to allow for. It’s loaded with great sight gags, witty dialogue, eccentric characters, and lively performances.

Successful Hollywood director John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea), born rich and now even richer, who specializes in lightweight musicals and comedies such as his popular “Ants in Your Pants” of 1939, tells his perplexed studio bosses Mr. Lebrand and Mr. Hadrian (Robert Warwick and Porter Hall) that he wants to make a serious film about poverty called O Brother, Where Art Thou? They think he’s flipped his lid, and try all means possible to dissuade him since he’s the studio’s resident genius and money cow. But Sullivan exits Hollywood with only a dime in his pocket after he passes muster dressed as a tramp by his displeased valet and butler (Eric Blore and Robert Grieg), as he hits the road as a hitchhiker to get in touch with the ordinary citizen and experience poverty first-hand. Following discretely behind him is a luxurious studio van filled with a host of studio watchdogs and the press, who are promised an exclusive story in what is seen as the studio’s elaborate publicity stunt. Newspaperman Mr. Jones (William Demarest) and an entourage that includes a chef and a doctor, are there to serve the director when he needs his comforts. Realizing how phony this looks and that he can’t lose them, Sullivan makes a deal to meet the entourage two weeks from now in Las Vegas and tell all about his adventure.

On the road alone, Sullivan has trouble leaving Hollywood and meets a failed aspiring actress, known only as The Girl (Veronica Lake), heading back to her Midwest home in disappointment that she never met her Lubitsch. The Girl thinks he’s a hobo and buys him breakfast and wins his heart. After she finds out who he is and what his noble experiment is, she persuades Sullivan to take her along. They ride freight trains, and when she ups the ante from getting a movie role to his hand in marriage–he explains he’s in a loveless marriage that was something his shady business manager talked him into so he could save money on income taxes by filing a joint account.

Left alone to meet the unfortunate hobos before returning to Hollywood, Sullivan is mugged and loses consciousness. It leads to him being declared dead when his studio identity card is found on the dead bum who rolled him and was subsequently run over by the train. The disoriented Sullivan is chased and slapped around by a railroad yard bull, and responds by attacking him. Suffering from temporary amnesia, he receives a six year sentence to a chain gang, and unwittingly falls into the homeless situation he was only previously play acting at. From this horrible experience he learns his lesson and emerges a less arrogant and wiser man. He’s surprised to learn that the greatest pleasure for his fellow-prisoners, in the midst of their misery, was in watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Much of the film is tongue-in-cheek comedy, but the chain gang scenario and the emphasis on poverty being nothing to joke about turns the narrative deadly serious and packs a wallop. Sturges seems to be leaving room for commercial movies to be seen as valuable as arthouse films, and ends by holding laughter up as the perfect medicine for an unhappy world.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”